Duane and the Sky

One of my favorite shows currently on Broadway is Come From Away.  It is the true story of how the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland takes in over 6500 travelers from around the world after their planes are grounded post 9/11.  The show is beautifully told with a cast of 12 actors who play multiple parts–both townsfolk and “plane people.”  Recently, Apple TV+ released a profilm version of the musical.  One of the original actors in the musical, Jen Collela, returned for the filmed version.  One of the characters she plays is the pilot Captain Beverly Bass.  Historically, Captain Bass had already made a name for herself as the first American female airline captain for a major commercial airline.  She was also the first airline pilot to captain an all female crew.  Captain Bass’s flight from France to Dallas was grounded in Gander on 9/11.  There is a song called Me and the Sky that tells how she went from being a “crazy kid” that watched airplanes to being a senior captain for American Airlines.  

One of my first memories of Duane was him telling me that he was going to be a pilot someday.  We were sitting in the backyard of his house in Kankakee, IL.  I remember he said it so matter of factly there was no reason not to believe him.  Duane was 6 years older than me.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but to me, he always seemed years ahead of me.  He was in high school while I was still in elementary school–college when I was in middle school–on his own when I was in high school.  He was young enough to pay attention to me, his younger cousin, but old enough to have that coolness that older kids have.  

Not to diminish anything from Captain Bass’s accomplishments, but there are parts of her story that remind me of my cousin, Duane.  I often wonder if these are the dues that all pilots must pay before reaching their goal.  Every time I hear that song, I can’t help but think of Duane..

The first stanza of the song describes how as a child, Captain Bass would go to the airport to watch the planes.  

“My parents must have thought they had a crazy kid

‘Cause I was one of those kids who always knew what I wanted

They took me down to the airport to see all the planes departing

Watching them fly something inside of me was starting

I was eight when I told them that I’d be a pilot”

Since Duane could drive, whenever we got together for holidays or special events, he would always want to take me to the local airport and show me the airplanes.  It did not matter that this was a small county airport–more of a landing strip as opposed to an international airport–he was still excited to point everything out.  Personally, I had no interest in airplanes, but I would go along.  He was older, he was cool, I enjoyed hanging out with him.  At that point, he had already started his piloting lessons and he would show me his log books, his route maps, and talk about different types of planes.  This was what he loved–this was his passion.  

The song goes on:

…I got my first job flying for a mortician

In a tiny bonanza, just a corpse and me

Five dollars an hour for flying dead bodies

I had to climb over their faces just to get to my seat

And suddenly the wheels lift off

The ground is falling backwards

I am suddenly alive

I do not know all of the flying jobs that Duane took.  I do remember, though, they were multiple.  He lived all over the country–moving to wherever he could get a job in the industry.   

Suddenly I’m in the cockpit

Suddenly I’ve got my wings…

He flew for private companies and individuals.  He flew jets and eventually became a flight engineer for US Airways and eventually he earned his wings as a Captain for Delta Airlines.  It was while he was with US Airways that he offered to get my sister and myself discounted airfare to Europe.  Not only did we get a huge discount, but we were able to fly first class.  We had a great time on that trip.  

Suddenly I’m getting married…

And we’re putting pins on the map where we’ve flown…

Amidst all of this he met someone, got married and started a family.  I remember flying to TX to be at his wedding.  They had real Texas BBQ with homemade ice cream for the rehearsal dinner.

‘Cause suddenly I am a senior instructor and I’m flying Paris to Dallas…

I remember him explaining this new exciting job where he was instructing pilots on one of the newest and most advanced commercial planes.  After 9/11, he didn’t let the fact that major airlines were grounded affect his dream–He packed up his family and moved to Australia to work in aviation on the other side of the world.  

Once he was flying commercially again, every time he would fly to Brazil, he would send me a message letting me know what he saw and what he did.  He loved finding and enjoying connections between people. 

 Duane  had an infectious friendliness that automatically put everyone around him at ease.  Without a doubt, he was one of the nicest people I know.  He was outgoing and gregarious and always had a huge smile plastered on his face.  I never saw him angry, upset nor did I ever hear him utter one disparaging word. 

His death is tragic and leaves a void that I didn’t know could exist.  What is even more tragic, though, is that his death was totally preventable.  I don’t know why he chose not to get the vaccine and I choose not to dwell on that.  But his suffering and his death was pointless.  Honestly, I’m having a hard time coming to terms with his death, but I’m having an even harder time coming to terms with the fact that his death could have been prevented.   

Duane still had much to do, much to live and much to love.  But there is comfort that while we did have him, Duane filled not only his life with adventure, love, kindness, and goodness but the lives of everyone who knew him. 

He  topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –

And, while with silent, lifting mind he trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out his hand, and touched the face of God.

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